“The worst program on television–maybe ever…” one reviewer dubbed NBC’s daytime soap opera Santa Barbara upon its debut in July 1984. Critics soon changed their tune about the show, however, and it would run for more than eight years, garnering numerous Daytime Emmy Awards, including the statuette for Best Drama Series in 1988, 1989 and 1990. The show’s ratings never reached the level of its critical buzz, however, and NBC finally pulled the plug, airing its final episode on January 15, 1993.
Created by the husband-and-wife team Bridget and Jerome Dobson, former head writers at Guiding Light and As the World Turns, Santa Barbara centered on four California families: the wealthy Capwells and Lockridges, the middle-class Perkinses and the poorer Andrades. Channing Capwell Jr. was killed five years before the action of the series began, and much of the show’s drama revolved around unraveling the mystery surrounding his murder. After Santa Barbara’s unimpressive debut–which could partially be blamed on its coincidence with the 1984 Summer Olympic Games–the show’s writers took a radical approach to boost ratings, killing off a number of characters with earthquake and serial killer storylines. By the 1987 season, Santa Barbara was earning more Daytime Emmy nominations than any other show, and had also earned a following of devoted fans.
Among daytime soaps, Santa Barbara was notable for its generous $30 million budget and its unique blend of romance, melodrama and black comedy (one popular character was killed when a giant neon letter “C” fell from the Capwell Hotel sign, crushing her). It was also the first soap with prominent Hispanic characters–notably Cruz Castillo (A. Martinez), who with Eden Capwell (Marcy Walker) formed one of the show’s resident “power couples”–and even featured a member of the British nobility, Dame Judith Anderson, as the grand dame Minx Lockridge.
Despite the enthusiasm of such famous fans as President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, Santa Barbara never finished above 10th place in the ratings, and its popularity began to wane after the 1988 season. This trend continued over the next few years, even as the show won its string of Emmy Awards and became a smash hit in such far-flung locales as Eastern Europe and post-Soviet Russia. After fiddling with airtimes in an effort to bolster ratings, NBC made the decision to cancel Santa Barbara. In the supremely unsubtle final shot of the finale, Paul Rauch, the show’s executive producer, walked in front of the camera, smashed a cigar under his shoe and walked away.
Among soap opera fans around the world, Santa Barbara remains a cult favorite. Alumni of the series include Robin Wright Penn, star of such films as The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump and Message in a Bottle; soap opera mainstay Jack Wagner (Melrose Place) and executive producer Mary Ellis-Bunim, the late co-creator of MTV’s The Real World.